Is the Tax Bill a New Low in American Politics?

by Neil H. Buchanan

The Republicans have now passed their stroke-the-rich tax bill, and we might (or might not, as I will explain tomorrow) be dealing with the consequences of this mess for years.  It continues to be ridiculous to call this a "fundamental tax overhaul" or "sweeping reform," as the major media outlets insist on doing ad nauseam, but the final bill did surprise me by being relatively large.

I say "relatively" because George W. Bush's first big tax cut bill in 2001 was scored as a $1.35 trillion revenue loser over the standard ten-year budget window, whereas this one is somewhere between $1 and $1.5 trillion.  With national income having almost doubled from 2001 to 2017, the new tax cut is much smaller in any meaningful sense than Bush's bill.

Indeed, The Washington Post's fact-checker ran the numbers and found that the current bill is not only not especially large, but it is actually smaller than two tax cuts passed during Barack Obama's presidency.  (Shhh ...  Don't tell Trump!)

On the other hand, Ryan Grim at The Intercept offers a provocative claim that this is the largest tax increase by far in U.S. history.  His argument is that the Republicans actually cut taxes on their favored patrons (corporations and rich people) by $6 trillion and then made up $4.5 trillion of that amount by increasing regular people's taxes, so that the bill, "properly described, is two things: the largest tax cut — and also the biggest tax increase — in American history."

In other words, as unprincipled and ridiculously ad hoc as this bill is, it certainly represents something significant in that it is a hugely regressive piece of legislation.  Whatever its net cost might be, it dramatically redistributes income upward.

And that is before we even take into account the assault on Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and "welfare" that the Republicans have promised for next year (partly justified by a supposed deficit problem that they deliberately intensified with this tax bill).

My expectation that the Republicans would fail to get themselves organized enough even to accomplish their ill-conceived ends turned out (quite unfortunately) not to be true.  Whereas I expected them to bicker among themselves until eventually settling on some minimalist rump bill that would cut taxes in a blunt way (reducing rates, for example), they actually got nearly every Republican in the House along with all 52 senators to vote for this ambitiously antisocial tax bill.

As much as I would like to diminish the significance of something that Trump will call "huge," what they did was certainly more consequential than I thought it would be.

I believed that some Republicans would balk at various pieces of the plan as it was hashed out because I continued to believe that there would be some lingering levels of substantive and procedural decency on the Republicans' part.  I was wrong.  They all exposed their utter lack of shame, arguably bringing us to a new low in recent American political history.

But is this truly the lowest point that we have reached in recent decades?  I will consider a few competing moments before explaining why this tax debacle is plausibly worse than any of them.

Two weeks ago, when I found out that the Republicans had secured enough votes in the Senate to pass their bill, I immediately had a sick feeling in my stomach.  I tried to remember the last time that I had felt such a sense of despair, a feeling that overwhelmed both my head and my heart, a feeling based on the sinking realization that nothing made sense anymore.

Is this the worst moment in recent political history?  If not, what is?

-- Election Day 2016: The most obvious possibility for an even worse moment was barely more than a year ago, November 9, when it turned out that our bizarre system for selecting presidents had turned a racist, sexist, narcissistic ignoramus who decisively lost the popular vote into the president-elect.  That the vote might even be close was bad enough, but when 62 million people actually showed up and pulled the lever for him -- in numbers just sufficient in key states for him to thread the needle -- the future became bleaker than ever.

At the time, I was even more scared of Trump than I am today.  His many faults have made him a much less effective would-be autocrat thus far than I thought he would be, although I have no doubt that he is capable of stumbling his way onto much worse paths than we might currently imagine possible.

On the other hand, on November 9 there was still the hope that Trump would face resistance from Republicans in Congress.  He had long been at odds with his party's congressional leaders, and conservative commentators frequently talked about impeachment as not only plausible but almost inevitable.  We still had reason to believe that there were limits to what Republicans would tolerate.

As bad as the day after the election in 2016 was, therefore, there was still a sense that things might not be falling apart.  Even pessimists like me who believed early on that Trump was a constitutional crisis waiting to happen were confident that there would at least be some bipartisan sense of decency.  That we were wrong supports my argument below about why the 2017 tax vote was actually worse than Trump's election.

-- Bush v. Gore: For most observers, the Supreme Court's intervention in the 2000 election remains utterly inexplicable.  Even seventeen years later, nearly every aspect of what happened remains beyond the realm of possibility, except that it happened.  When the per curiam opinion that effectively decided the election completely rewrote equal protection law, that was bad enough; but when it then said that this was essentially a one-time-only reading of the Constitution, something seemed permanently broken.

That Antonin Scalia continued to mock people about the case for years afterward (frequently yelling at audiences and telling them to "get over it") was awful, of course, and the Bush-versus-Gore pain was worsened by the complete lack of consequences for anyone involved.  The "Brooks Brothers riot," in which Republican operatives intimidated the vote counters in Miami-Dade County, worked.  The Republicans were relentless, and the Democrats decided to move on without much of a fight.  This was, in hindsight, the beginning of the end of American politics as we knew it.

-- Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court confirmation: As bad as those two events were, the leading contender for Most Sickening Moment in recent U.S. political history has always been the Thomas nomination to the Supreme Court.  Every aspect of it was disheartening.

When Thurgood Marshall's seat opened up, there was some sense that the first George Bush -- despite having run an ugly racist campaign in 1988 (or perhaps because of that) -- would look for a Republican nominee who would be highly qualified and above reproach, possibly someone who could chart a conservative path toward a historic coming together on civil rights issues.

Instead, the Bush people found a far-right ideologue with a paper-thin resume who promised to be the anti-Marshall (especially on race), a man whose qualifications were so weak that he was rated as minimally "qualified" by the American Bar Association (with two committee members voting him "unqualified, and none deeming him "well qualified").

Thomas made it even worse by offering evasive and dishonest answers to the Senate Judiciary Committee, including the laughable assertion that he had never really thought much about Roe v. Wade.  By the end of the planned hearings, the future looked dim for Thomas.  Much to my amazement, however, enough Democrats in the Senate were willing to "give the president his man" that his nomination was not dead.

When the Anita Hill story broke, it appeared that we would get the right outcome, albeit for an unexpected reason.  Yet even that was not enough.  That was the first time in my life that I thought to myself: "Oh my god, nothing that I thought about the world is actually true!"  What had happened was so far outside of what had seemed the limits of possibility that it was necessary to radically revise my understanding of the (un)importance of evidence and logic in American political life.

-- The 2017 Tax Bill:

All of which brings us back to the present moment and my sense that the Republicans' mean-spirited legislative travesty might represent a new low in the country's politics.  I hasten to add that this conclusion is most definitely not driven by the fact that I am a tax law professor, because my sense of devastation is not driven by technical tax-related matters.  Instead, I am distraught because of what the passage of this bill tells us about American politics today.

Coming out of the Republicans' Keystone Kops-like attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act earlier this year, there was reason to think that a bare minimum of decency still existed in the Republicans' Senate caucus.  Although John McCain's thumb-down theatrics defeated the Republicans' best hope by only one vote, there was good reason to suspect that several other Republicans would have voted no but allowed McCain to look like the hero.  Maybe not, but it at least appeared to be possible that other Republicans were in play.

When the tax debate began in earnest, we had Susan Collins still playing the self-styled moderate (against plenty of evidence to the contrary), and we had John McCain claiming that "regular order" and other procedural issues were important to him.  There was no reason to think that Lisa Murkowski was in the tank, either, and there were a number of reasons that Republicans might want to save themselves in the face of increasingly forbidding political terrain.

When those people all fell in line, that was another one of those moments where I said, "Wait, what?  I thought that my understanding of the political world was sufficiently cynical, but this is worse."  Murkowski was bought off by a non-germane provision to drill-baby-drill in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.  McCain simply folded, even though his party's leaders had even more openly flouted Senate norms and did not even wait to have final language before voting on the bill, and even though Republicans attacked the nonpartisan analyses of the plan.

I have written more than enough about Collins over the past year, so I will simply link to a piece by Emma Roller, who argues persuasively that Collins is not being "rolled" or "duped" or anything else by Republican leadership.  Collins is now completely exposed as a hard-right conservative who is willing to sign onto a piece of legislation that will both directly and collaterally hurt her constituents, even though her vote was not needed.

Similarly, retiring Tennessee Senator Bob Corker's will-he-or-won't-he nonsense was ridiculous.  The only Republican to have voted against the Senate's version of the bill, Corker had no reason to change his vote.  (That his opposition was based on his childlike misunderstanding of budget deficits and the national debt is beside the point.)  In fact, given everything else that was going on, no one expected him to change his vote.

I am not one of the people who think that Corker's vote was "bought" by the last-minute insertion of a provision that personally enriches Corker and other real estate investors.  In the naive/stupid/evil framing of the world, Corker seems more stupid than evil, and his excuse for changing his vote was truly silly: "I had concerns about deficits, but I also wanted progrowth tax reform to occur, so I had this pull between the two, if you will."

Given that the bill will, even by the most generous independent estimates, barely increase growth at all (and only for a few years because of demand-side effects, with no supply-side effects for long-term growth), Corker is saying that he traded off his deficit concerns because he had been sold a lie about growth by his fellow Republicans.

With no political future to worry about, Corker still provided an unnecessary vote and made it entirely a partisan matter, even though "left to my own accord, we would have reached bipartisan consensus on legislation that avoided any chance of adding to the deficit."  Principles!

In the end, I find myself now looking at U.S. politics as having made another historic turn with this mess of a tax bill.  No one on the right retains any credibility at all, and they are all too happy to put the screws to the non-rich in an effort to turn back time to the pre-Roosevelt era of unrestrained plutocracy.  We have no more reason to hope for anything better from any of them.